Bernard Hopkins, Joe Calzaghe recall their light heavyweight showdown 10 years later
It’s 10 years today since Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe faced off in an eagerly anticipated light heavyweight showdown.
Both men had the longest championship tenures in their respective lower weight classes. Hopkins reigned at middleweight for 10 years and three months, which yielded a division record 20 title defenses; while Calzaghe was champion for 10 years and 11 months years at super middleweight and made 21 title defenses.
Hopkins, who was the unified and undisputed middleweight champ, had lost his 160-pound titles in controversial fashion to Jermain Taylor in July 2005. In a gutsy move for a man who had turned 40, Hopkins skipped the 168-pound division and impressively bested Antonio Tarver for THE RING 175-pound title in June 2006 and defended it against Winky Wright the following summer.
In November 2007, Calzaghe had edged Mikkel Kessler in a super middleweight unification bout and felt he needed a new challenge. The Welsh star vacated his 168-pound titles and ventured into the light heavyweight realm.
A month later, Calzaghe traveled to Las Vegas to support good friend Ricky Hatton who was facing Floyd Mayweather Jr. Whilst there he sought out a meeting that turned into a now-infamous confrontation with Hopkins in the media room.
Both men exchanged words before Hopkins said, “I’ll never lose to a white boy.”
It was a comment that both men felt went a long way to securing the fight.
“I thought was great because at the end of the day he made the fight happen,” Calzaghe told RingTV.com. “I wasn’t offended by it. White, black, blue, green, a fighter’s a fighter. Bernard can be controversial, we saw what happened with him and Felix Trinidad when he stepped on the Puerto Rican flag.
“Nothing would surprise me with Bernard. As soon as he said it, I knew the fight was done.”
Hopkins agrees with his rival.
“I would say that it was 75 percent made,” Hopkins said. “They saw two guys wanting to fight.
“It wasn’t a joke, it was how I felt. That was my mindset at that time, I had to be that villain, I had to be that guy that had a chip on his shoulder. I had to represent how I felt I had to represent.
“It wasn’t planned, with me things happen based on how things are going. I’m 90-percent calculated but sometimes you’ve got to see how you’re treated for me to respond. I had to take the bull by the horns early.”
A deal was quickly struck to fight on April 19, 2008 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The host casino, Planet Hollywood, dubbed the fight “Battle of the Planet.”
Hopkins decamped from his home on the East Coast to Los Angeles and worked with the expert trio Freddie Roach, Naazim Richardson and John David Jackson at the Wild Card Boxing Club, as well as with famed fitness guru Mackie Shilstone.
While Calzaghe in typical fashion prepared at home out of Newbridge, South Wales, under his father, Enzo’s tutelage.
“That’s the only fight I wanted to get up for in the morning,” Calzaghe said. “To be a two-weight world champion – I know it’s not for a (sanctioning organization) belt but THE RING Magazine (title) it’s the No. 1 and I had the super middleweight RING Magazine belt, so I wanted the light heavyweight title and he was the main man at the time so it was great.
“I trained hard for the fight, you train hard for every fight but fight someone like Hopkins and you train a bit harder. I didn’t spar a lot for the Hopkins fight because I was injured in the Kessler fight, he banged me in the ribs and I couldn’t shake it. I always had left hand trouble. That was on my mind but I was 100 percent confident I could win the fight. That’s what champions do, go into the other guy’s backyard so to speak.”
Calzaghe arrived two weeks ahead of the fight and decided against staying on the strip among the hustle and bustle, instead electing to rent a villa half an hour from the strip.
Meanwhile, Hopkins elected to stay at the MGM Grand Hotel Casino.
Backstage ahead of the weigh-in both camps crossed each other’s paths. Both men vividly remember the encounter.
Hopkins looked at Calzaghe and said, “I’m gonna bust them ribs” to which the Welshman retorted, “Listen old man, look at them, you’re older than me, I’m gonna bust them ribs.”
“It was quite funny because Bernard likes his mind games and he was saying things and I smiled back. He couldn’t intimidate me,” said Calzaghe.
“I’ve got to give him credit, he challenged back,” recollected Hopkins. “He’s a little smart ass but he had that dry, subtle type of way because he didn’t say it loud, he said it in a mild tone but he said it like he meant it.”
Both men scaled 173 pounds a short while later when they weighed in.
The next night, Calzaghe – a 3-1 pre-fight favorite – suffered the early ignominy of being dropped in the opening round in front of some 14,213 fans. Hopkins felt that actually helped Calzaghe more than it did him.
“I think that wasn’t beneficial to me because I think by doing that woke him up,” said the future Hall of Famer. “If I’d dropped him later I’d have had a better shot but not earlier in the fight because I think that made him more aware of his style that he already brings to the table anyway.
“He doesn’t have a reckless style, he’s busy and it’s the timing part and I think waking him up made him aware and it made him not get hit like that again, at least to the point where he’s on the ground.”
Calzaghe says of the knockdown: “Bernard Hopkins was a trickier than I thought he’d be. He brought the right gameplan, caught me with a right hand in the first round. I wasn’t hurt, flash knockdown, got back up and kept fighting. ”
His son Conor was understandably emotional ringside. A lady put her hand on his shoulder to console him and tell him it would be OK. It turned out it was none other than pop legend Whitney Houston.
Many of the rounds were awkward to score and looking back both can appreciate the difficult job the judges had that evening.
“It was just very frustrating,” said the Welshman. “Bernard was so wily, old school fighter, all the tricks of the trade. He went defensive knowing I like people to come to me, so he fought a good gameplan and good fight.
“The rounds could be close, I lost the first obviously, the second, third and fourth, to be honest were close, I knew I was chasing the fight, after six, seven rounds. I thought 10 was close but I thought I won most of the rounds other than that.
“I was the one who forced the fight, Bernard was getting tired. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a [Jeff] Lacy or [Mikkel] Kessler fight. Styles make fights, it was messy and I think my workrate won the fight, I threw a lot more punches and forced the fight more.”
Calzaghe was awarded a split decision win: Chuck Giampa and Ted Gimza both sided with Calzaghe 116-111, 115-112 while the other judge, Adelaide Byrd, voted in Hopkins favor 114-113.
Hopkins (48-4-1, 32 knockouts) remembered there being a lot of close rounds but felt he did enough to win the fight.
“I felt I pulled enough tight rounds where I won, being champion,” said Hopkins. “I believe I did enough with the knockdown and I didn’t get knocked down myself and there was no blow out rounds. I think worse case scenario it should have been a split decision my way if the fight was close enough, there were some rounds I didn’t get the benefit of the doubt, he did.”
Calzaghe (45-0, 32 KOs) acknowledges it wasn’t a great fight.
“I won the fight and I thought I won the fight but it was one of them things, neither of us really dominated the other one in any of the rounds. I outworked him in the second half of the fight, which I think is plain to see, thanks to my fitness and workrate. Styles can make it messy, he caught me with some good shots and he had some good times.
“It wasn’t a great fight to watch but it was in my top couple of best wins because of the nature of the fight, coming from behind and fighting in Las Vegas against a future Hall of Famer, one of the best middleweight’s of all time and he turned out to be a great light heavyweight too.
“I was 100 percent confident in my ability, I’d never lost [as a professional], I hadn’t lost since I was 17 [as an amateur]. Bernard was getting older but you see what he did afterwards he was still on top of his game. Winning that fight was one of the best things in my career.”
The quick-fisted southpaw enjoyed a few drinks with Welsh actor Catherine Zita-Jones and singer Tom Jones, though he says it was largely low key and he returned to the villa the following day to spend time with his family.
A decade later both remain cordial when they see each other and have great respect for their one-time rival.
“I remember seeing him at Amir Khan-Zab Judah,” said Calzaghe. “He was great, as good as gold, full of respect. I’ve got respect as well, we had a picture and sat together and chatted at ringside.
“We were in the ring before hand, he said, ‘Lets do a rematch?’ I was the businessman and said, ‘OK, 60-40, me’ and he was like, ‘We can negotiate.’ That was fun. We both said it tongue in cheek, laughing. I was never gonna come back.”
The Philadelphian concurs.
“I respect Joe. I respect the father. I’ve got mad respect for him because at the end of the day he fought everybody, he didn’t duck anybody,” Hopkins said. “I hope he stays healthy and when we meet again we’ll laugh and joke and take pictures. At the end of the day he’s my comrade and I’m pretty sure he’ll say the same thing about me.
“To me [Calzaghe was] one of the greatest of all-time, he can break bread with anyone in any weight division.”
Hopkins went on to shock Kelly Pavlik later that year, gain revenge over Roy Jones Jr. and become the oldest fighter to ever win a world title when he outpointed RING/WBC champ Jean Pascal in their rematch. He lost to Chad Dawson but rebounded to win both the IBF and WBA titles before retiring in December 2016.
Calzaghe fought once more, again in America against another of the greats of his era, Jones Jr.
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